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Retirement Community's 'Hugging Wall' Allows for Touch During Pandemic

A little inspiration — and plastic — helps loved ones connect during the holidays

A man and a woman embrace while in a plastic container
Westminster-Canterbury CEO Ben Unkle stands next to a hugging wall, where a resident enjoys a hug with his visitor.
Courtesy of Westminster-Canterbury

Who would have thought a simple shower-curtain liner could do so much more than keep the bathroom floor dry? So observed Betsy Via, 82, after embracing her son, Rex Hodgson, 60, through a “hugging wall” — a sheet of clear plastic — set up at her senior living community in Virginia Beach, Virginia, a few weeks ago. It was the first time she and her husband, David, 92, had seen (and, certainly, touched) Rex, who lives in Richmond, Virginia, in person since COVID-19 began spreading in earnest across the country last March.

The Vias live at Westminster-Canterbury on Chesapeake Bay, a nonprofit community overlooking the ocean that has about 700 residents. It has two hugging walls, each of which looks less like a wall than a very revealing shower stall. It's a simple concept: A plastic shower liner is attached with curtain rings to a pipe that hangs in a square from the ceiling. The resident goes inside the three-sided curtained space while their children or grandchildren or whomever they feel like hugging remains on the outside. They hug through the plastic, which is loose enough to allow for a full embrace. The curtain is later fully disinfected with an electrostatic sprayer.

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"It was a bit crunchy,” says Betsy, “but it worked, and we loved it."

The staff decided to set up the first hugging wall in early November, says Ben Unkle, CEO of Westminister-Canterbury, because, “Everyone needs their holiday hugs.” It's located near an outside entrance (so a family doesn't have to walk too far into the building), in one of the community's visitation stations — living-room-like areas with plastic partitions between visitors and residents that can be booked for 45 minutes. The stations are then cleaned for 15 minutes before the next group enters. The hugging wall was so popular that the staff added a second one just before Thanksgiving — both were booked back-to-back by cuddle-craving families over the holiday weekend.

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Amesh A. Adalja M.D., senior scholar at Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security in Baltimore, says that using this sort of physical barrier is a safe option during the pandemic and is ideal “for people who are very risk averse” and “in places where they're trying to eliminate as many risks as possible.”

Staff members at Westminster-Canterbury have made safety a priority — “We are militantly insistent on masking,” Unkle says — and so far have had no COVID-19 cases in their assisted living and nursing center, which is home to about 60 residents, and only two isolated cases among their independent living residents. (Virginia Beach, meanwhile, has had more than 10,800 cases since the pandemic began.)

The hugging wall fits into the resortlike retirement community's mission to protect and promote both physical and emotional well-being, Unkle says: “It's safe, it's simple, it's cheap, but it has dramatic impact. Everybody ought to be doing it."

Two women sit outside in chairs with Plexiglass separating them and residents on the other side
Before creating the hugging wall, Westminster-Canterbury created an "outdoor living room" using a plexiglass barrier to seperate residents from families.
Courtesy of Westminster-Canterbury

It's not a new concept, of course. Families have been using plastic sheets as a barrier for a next-best thing to a pre-pandemic snuggle, sometimes calling it a hugging sheet, hug glove or cuddle curtain. One New Jersey grandmother was even more inventive, dressing up in a head-to-toe unicorn costume to safely visit her grandsons for hugs.

Betsy says her family chuckled over the hugging wall when they first saw the contraption. “I said, ‘We don't have to use it. It might sound kind of silly,’ “ she says, “but Rex said, ‘No, I want to hug you.’ “

So Betsy went with David inside the stall and hugged Rex and his wife, Joanne, through the curtain. It made the visit extra special, says Betsy, adding that she almost cries talking about it — “and I'm not a crier… I just really forgot about how wonderful it is to hug your children."